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April 7, 2004

Ask not what the 'sphere can do for you

The announcement of the Pulitzer Prizes brings these comments from Dan Gillmor:

Ask yourself if bloggers, even though they do great work, could have pulled off the kind of journalism that turned into some of these winning entries...

Dave Winer challenged him:

Could one of the authors of one of the award-winning articles have a weblog? Hard to imagine why one couldn't. If so, then a blogger could pull off that kind of journalism.

Dan responded:

Well, of course one of these journalists could have a blog. And then, in a literal sense, yes, this kind of journalism could be done by blogger.
...It's nearly inconceivable that a blogger or even a group of bloggers, lacking the resources of a major news organization (including First Amendment lawyers), would have produced any of these projects.

I have to agree with Dan on this. The use of a tool (a weblog) by a particular group (investigative journalists) does not magically bestow the skills or resources of that group upon anyone who picks up the tool. Substitute "ball-point pen" for "weblog" and this becomes more obvious:

Could one of the authors of one of the award-winning articles use a ball-point pen? Hard to imagine why one couldn't. If so, then a ball-point pen user could pull off that kind of journalism.

It's easy to imagine why award-winning investigative journalists might not use weblogs: for a given investigation, a weblog might not be the most effective tool for the job. The available resources (reporter time, for example) might be better spent elsewhere.

That's a "might be," though, not a "will." My favorite example of relatively early use of the web as a reporting tool is Mark Bowden's original Philadelphia Inquirer Blackhawk Down series, particularly the Author Q&As. While, technically speaking, the Q&As were not a weblog, they appear to have greatly enhanced both the later articles in the original series and the book that followed. Primary sources Bowden had been unable to reach read the articles online as they were published and contacted Bowden through the Q&As.

I imagine that's not the first time the web was used as an effective investigative journalism tool, and it certainly won't be the last. I'd be interested to know how important and/or helpful Bowden considered the Q&As in relation to the rest of his investigative work for the series and the book.

And no, Bowden didn't research this on the side. He had exactly the kind of support Dan referred to above:

Q: [John Plaster] You've done a fantastic job. Why was this published as a newspaper serial rather than a book -- the story of these brave men deserves wide exposure.
A: [Mark Bowden] Very few newspapers are willing to undertake something as extensive as Blackhawk Down. The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of the few. For a writer to be able to work on a salary and be paid expenses (like, for traveling all over the US to interview soldiers, travel to Mogadishu), doing the work for a newspaper is the best deal imaginable. Then, to be able to expand on the topic in book form ... well, it's hard to beat.

It diminishes Bowden's accomplishment not at all to suggest that his editors deserve credit for their support and encouragement of his research.

Seven years later, has the newspaper environment changed enough that he would find it significantly more difficult to get such institutional backing? I imagine Black Hawk Down readers would deliver funds by the carload were Bowden to start a blog and solicit support for a project in development. But would the blogosphere recognize the possibility of the next Black Hawk Down in advance, and provide the support needed to bring it into the world? Maybe that's what Dan's really asking.

Posted by Brenden at April 7, 2004 1:01 AM


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